On Wednesday, Chris Cavalera got a wave of text messages. There had been a crash on the Baltimore Beltway near I-70.
“Stick” manages that site, Cavalera thought. He gave him a call, but there was no answer. “Stick,” as Mahlon Simmons II is known, had died along with five others, after a car collided with another vehicle and entered the work site, Cavalera later learned.
Cavalera, 42, a foreman who lays concrete for subcontractor Paul J. Rach, worked at that exact site in the median of I-695 last month alongside the victims. He has to return to the job there next month.
“Things need to change,” he said, to make sure workers are safer.
Wednesday’s incident is one of the deadlier work zone crashes across the U.S. and in Maryland between 1980 and 2020, according to a Banner analysis of Fatality Analysis Reporting System data maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In Maryland alone during that time period, there were only two crashes that resulted in more than six fatalities. Nationally, there were fewer than 400 crashes that deadly.
In addition to Simmons II, 52, and his son, Mahlon Simmons III, 31, Maryland State Police identified Rolando Ruiz, 46; Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, 43; Jose Armando Escobar, 52; and Sybil Lee Dimaggio, 46, as those killed in the collision.
Cavalera has worked along highways for 23 years. Sometimes it can feel like a war zone.
“Your head needs to always be on a swivel,” he said.
Wynton Johnson, a 60-year-old facility maintenance technician for the State Highway Administration, has been out there the last 19 years.
“We’re careful when we go to work and punch in, knowing we have to go out there and don’t know who’s gonna go home that day,” said Johnson, also the vice president of AFSCME council 3, the union for state employees and president of local 631. “And that’s not a job that you really want, but we have to have it.”
Both have seen coworkers get killed or injured on the road.
At one site, Cavalera recalled, a pickup truck flew into a machine at around 90 mph, catching fire and killing the driver, just around 30 minutes before he arrived for work that day. At another, a car hit and killed a worker around 200 feet away.
The exact cause of the incident is under investigation, but video obtained by The Banner appears to show the two cars traveling at a high rate of speed heading northbound. As a gray Acura driven by 54-year-old Lisa Adrienne Lea, of Randallstown, tries to move into the far-left lane, the two vehicles sideswipe each other while traveling in the same direction. That type of accident has become more common in Maryland and even more so on the Baltimore Beltway, a Banner analysis of state crash data found.
The Banner identified at least 104 sideswipe collisions among cars traveling in the same direction on the Baltimore Beltway in fall 2022, the most recent publicly-released data available. That was twice the amount in the same three-month period in 2016.
This specific type of collision had not led to a fatality on the Baltimore Beltway since 2016 until last year when two fatal crashes occurred near Edmondson Avenue and Ritchie Highway.
“I can’t remember any time that we’ve seen a tragedy like this on our roadways, particularly as it relates to an active work zone,” said Ragina Ali, public affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “It’s probably the deadliest that I can recall, and it’s just a horrible tragedy.”
Ali noted state law requires motorists to slow down in work zones. But in the past few years, Johnson said he has noticed drivers are speeding and driving more recklessly, mirroring a national trend experts say started during pandemic lockdowns and hasn’t relented.
“It’s real rough out there right now, and the highways are getting more and more people traveling,” he said. “So it’s really fearful as of right now, truthfully.”
Cavalera and his wife Shanna, a truck driver who spends eight to 12 hours a day on the road, have seen people reading the newspaper or a book propped up on their steering wheel while driving. They’ve seen people eating, writing, driving with their knees.
“It’s just a lack of humanity, in my opinion, and a lack of thinking,” Shanna Cavalera said.
Jane Terry, vice-president for government affairs at the National Safety Council, said drivers might be compelled to slow down in work zones if there were more automated enforcement programs in place. These programs monitors speeds and ticket drivers who do not follow the speed limit.
Highway workers that NSC represents have noticed a difference, she said.
There are numerous automated enforcement cameras in work zones across Maryland, but there were none at the site of the fatal crash.
The Maryland State Police Crash Team and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident. Peter Knudson, a public affairs officer with the National Transportation Safety Board said they will look at issues related to speed, construction zone safety and “collision avoidance technology.”
Most NTSB investigations are done in 12-24 months, Knudson said, but a preliminary report will be ready in about three weeks.
Cavalera feels safer when he’s working on the shoulders of a highway. But it can feel scary to be on the median, where the six highway workers were when they were killed.
Shanna and Chris Cavalera feel that crash trucks -- vehicles positioned to potentially absorb the force of a vehicle that travels into a construction zone -- could be positioned closer to work sites and moved around as needed. During Wednesday’s crash, the gray Acura that flipped in between a gap in the temporary jersey walls and into the work zone passed in front of the crash truck, they said.
The Cavaleras would also like to see other safety measures such as re-enforced fencing to catch cars that come near or a more constant police presence during daytime hours.
Johnson said drivers need to do their part, too. They have follow the speed limit and pay attention. He rarely sees motorists follow the Maryland’s Move Over Law, requiring drivers change lanes if they see a stopped vehicle with any warning signal, such as hazard lights, on the shoulder. If it’s not possible to move over, they should slow down.
In such a dangerous job, Johnson said he is always thinking about coming home safe to his wife and grandchildren.
“That’s the next generation,” he said. “That’s what I’m really worried for now — me coming home and them seeing pop-pop.”
This article was updated to correct the spelling of Lisa Adrienne Lea’s middle name and to clarify that the gray Acura flipped into the work zone in a gap between the jersey barriers.